Advice for Writers: 10 Takeaways from John Gardner’s “On Becoming a Novelist”
“A wise and honest assessment of what it is like and what is necessary to become a writer and stay a writer.” (Raymond Carver)
John Gardner was a novelist with an obsession for literary workmanship and a belief in the power of art to enrich life. He wrote fourteen novels and story collections, as well as poetry, children’s books, literary criticism, translations of medieval poetry, and two books on writing. He taught at Oberlin, San Francisco State, Southern Illinois University (Carbondale), and Binghamton, and he was a popular teacher at Bread Loaf. Gardner was born in 1933; he died in 1982, at the age of 49, in a motorcycle accident.
“Fine workmanship … workmanship, in short, that impresses us with its painstaking care, gives pleasure and a sense of life’s worth and dignity not only to the reader but to the writer as well.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
On Becoming a Novelist was published after Gardner’s death. He wrote it after twenty years of writing and teaching, essentially as an FAQ. He assumes the reader is “an intensely serious beginning novelist who wants the strict truth” about how to pursue the life of a novelist. Gardner also assumes a reader who wants to write “serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive.” His main objective is to identify and assuage “the beginning novelist’s worries” — that is, to give reassurance, helpful guidance, and encouragement.
Gardner was born in 1933, and his career covered the 1960s and ’70s. Hence, much of his advice on publishing is obsolete, so I’ve omitted most of that. Also dated is his usage of pronouns. Apologies for all the he’s and him’s in the quotes.
The book takes four parts: I. The Writer’s Nature, II. The Writer’s Training and Education, III. Publication and Survival, and IV. Faith.
“This book tries to give honest reassurance by making plain what the life of a novelist is like; what the novelist needs to guard against, inside himself and outside; what he can reasonably expect and what, in general, he cannot. It is a book that celebrates novel-writing and encourages the reader to give it a try if he or she is…